Friday, May 3, 2013

To separate or not? (1) - get something across

I was recently doing some material in class on phrasal verbs. We were using a CAE course book, which told the students they needed to know whether a phrasal verb is transitive or intransitive (does it take an object or not). And if it's transitive, they should know whether it's separable or inseparable.
Personally I'm not so convinced students need to know the grammatical properties of each phrasal verb so much as seeing them in context and getting practice in using them. But that's another story.

There was an exercise where you had to say whether certain phrasal verbs were being used correctly or not. The sentences were similar to these. See if you can tell which are correct:

Exercise 1

1.The teacher asked the students to hand in their homework.
2.The teacher asked the students to hand in it.
3.I'll just put through my daughter to you now.
4.I'll just put my daughter through to you now.
5.She quickly looked through the paper to see if there was anything interesting.
6.She quickly looked the paper through to see if there was anything interesting.
7.He sometimes had problems getting his meaning across.
8.He sometimes had problems getting across his meaning.

Get across - what the dictionaries say (1)

The Oxford Advanced Learners's Dictionary (OALD) lists:
  • get across (to somebody)
  • get something across (to somebody)
So we have both intransitive and transitive uses, and the transitive version is separable. In a moment we'll look at some example sentences from the OALD and three other online dictionaries, but first, here's a little experiment. Decide which sentence in each pair you think more natural.
  • He usually has no difficulty getting his ideas across.
    He usually has no difficulty getting across his ideas.
  • She was trying to get how much she loved him across.
    She was trying to get across how much she loved him.
There are no right or wrong answers here, but I'll discuss it a bit further after we look at some dictionary examples.

Get across - what the dictionaries say (2)

Example sentences from four British dictionaries popular with learners:
  • Oxford Advanced Learner's
    1. Your meaning didn't really get across. - intransitive
    2. He's not very good at getting his ideas across. - separated
  • Macmillan Dictionary
    3. He sometimes has trouble getting his meaning across in English - separated
    4. What message are you trying to get across to the consumer? - transitive
    5. I was trying to get across how much I admired them. - not separated
  • Cambridge Dictionaries Online
    6. We tried to get our point across, but he just wouldn't listen. - separated
    7. This is the message that we want to get across to the public. - transitive
  • Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English
    8. It took him ages to get his point across. - separated
    9. We must get across the simple fact that drugs are dangerous. - not separated
    10. The message isn't getting across. - intransitive
    11. It is important that we get this message across to voters. - separated + to

To separate, or to to separate; that is the question.

Course books and grammar books tell us that we can separate some phrasal verbs or not, depending on our choice, but they never seem to tell us when native speakers are likely to separate, and when not. All they usually tell us is that if the object is a pronoun, we must separate, and that there are a few phrasal verbs that are always separated, such as ring somebody back (I've written a separate post about these - link below).
By looking at one phrasal verb - get across - I want to see if we can see any patterns.
Look back at those dictionary example sentences. Do you notice any difference in the sentences where the transitive verb is separated (2,3,6,8,11) and where it is not (5,9)? Think especially about the direct objects.

Patterns with get across from the British National Corpus

The British National Corpus is a computerised collection of 'real life' texts, both written and spoken. Here are some of the sentences with get across I found there. There seem to be certain patterns - direct objects are shown in navy blue.

1. The direct object comes between the verb and the particle

  • He sometimes has trouble getting his meaning across in English
Note - short direct object

2. The direct object follows the particle

  • but seldom pausing long enough to get across the gravity of their message.
  • I tried to get across my fascination for the animal world.
  • it's difficult for actors here to get across their vision of insane optimism and everyday insanity.
  • a very useful way to get across the point that risk management isn't a negative process
  • ... is a one-off idea to get across the party's policies on a range of issues affecting women
  • it's very much to do with ideas and how that person can get across his ideas
Note - long direct objects, apart from the last example.

3. get across is followed by a prepositional phrase with to

  • It's difficult to get across to those who didn't know him just how outlandish this idea seemed.
  • That is what he wants to get across to the other person.
  • So how do you actually get across to the public something about this which makes the public love them?
Note - usually, when a prepositional phrase with to follows a separable phrasal verb, the verb is separated - I'm trying to get my point across to you (NOT - I'm trying to get across my point to you) but in two of these examples, the direct objects are rather long, so they sound more natural after the prepositional phrase, at the end of the sentence. This is sometimes known as end-weighting

4. get across + how, what and that + clause

  • I wanted to get across what individuals can do.
  • you should get across that it isn't dirty.
Note - these usually seem to follow the particle. The direct object here is a complete (noun) clause.

5. get across is used as a to-infinitive after an adjective, a verb form, a noun

  • qualities ... that are remarkably difficult to get across
  • I think this was the point Pat was trying to get across.
  • Admittedly this is a very hard point to get across.

6. Fronting

  • The real message they need to get across this Christmas is that ...


Related posts

Links - get across

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